Hot Stove Update, 5 December 2016

Today marks the beginning of MLB free agency (FA), the period in which teams can officially sign players to positions on their teams. Across the 30 teams of Major League Baseball, there are 139 free agents. You can find a full list here, but they include notables such as Aroldis Chapman, Mark Melancon, Steve Pearce, Mark Trumbo, Jose Bautista, and Edwin Encarnacion. There’s been a lot of movement on transaction wires through pre-FA trades, and the beginning of FA means even more action and lots of rumors flying. Here’s a review of some of today’s notable storylines.

1. Mark Melancon to the San Francisco Giants

Everyone knew that the Giants were targeting one of the few big name relief arms on the market — likely one of either Melancon, Kenley Jansen, or Aroldis Chapman. With the Melancon trade, it looks like they got their man. The Giants had 32 blown saves in 2016, and Melancon alone had 47 saves in 51 opportunities last year. Alex Pavlovic reports that Melancon will make $4m in 2017, $10m in 2018, and $14m each in 2019 and 2020. This is on top of a $20m signing bonus with $8m deferred, for a cool 4 year, $62 million contract. This makes him one of the highest paid relievers in baseball history.

Here’s Eno Sarris at FanGraphs: First, it’s a lot of money. Only twice before has a reliever received $60 million or more in net present value relative to today’s dollars, and if it’s $62 million in present value, it’s the biggest reliever deal ever.

That piece at FanGraphs is worth reading, because Sarris compares the deal (unfavorably) with previous deals with Joe Nathan, Jonathan Papelbon, and B.J. Ryan. None of those ended up being good deals. But there is reason for optimism: Melancon has a stellar 1.2 career postseason WHIP (a valuable commodity for anyone on a Giants pitching staff) and has had an ERA below 2.25 for each of the last four seasons. Here’s an example of Melancon’s vicious stuff:

With Melancon now off the market, teams will have to jockey for position to secure Jansen and Chapman, the remaining premier relievers. They have to be looking at Melancon’s payout and smiling all the way to the bank.

2. Edwin Encarnacion and Jose Bautista

Here’s an all-inclusive list of players who, from 2011 to 2016, hit more home runs than Edwin Encarnacion (210): …

Here’s a list of everyone who has more home runs than Jose Bautista and is not also named Edwin Encarnacion: Nelson Cruz, Chris Davis, and Miguel Cabrera. And, in order, here is what each of those three is due to make in 2017: $14.25m,$23m, and $28m. The verdict? These two guys are due for big payouts.

Toronto is likely signaling that they won’t be able to pick up the balance sheets for both players, opting to sign Baltimore’s Steve Pearce probably to fill the 1B/DH hole that Encarnacion’s departure will leave. Pearce’s slash ine in 2016–.288/.374/.492 was good enough for the 21st-best OPS+ in baseball.

Encarnacion has thus far been linked to Cleveland and Texas, but teams’ appetite for his hiring has probably been muted because he would come with the forfeiture of a draft pick. And the Rangers just signed outfielder turned DH extraordinaire Carlos Beltran, potentially filling their need for a slugging DH.

Bautista’s departure from Toronto is a more interesting possibility, and recent reports indicate that the Jays have no interest in meeting Bautista’s demands for a hefty salary increase. The slugger was paid $14m in each of the last five seasons of Toronto, and this spring Canadian media reported that Bautista was asking for another five year deal worth around $150m.

Bautista, like Encarnacion, carries a forfeited draft pick with him because he rejected the Blue Jays’ qualifying offer. Any team that signs him will need to give up its top unprotected draft pick. And Bautista is coming off of an underwhelming 2016, he slashed “only” .234/.366/.452 with 22 homers and 24 doubles. Even so, his 122 wRC+ means that he still generated 22% more runs than a league average batter. Mark Polishuk at MLBTradeRumors points out that this number is bested only by seven of this year’s free agent hitters. Bautista also carries injury risks after two DL trips this past season. Teams potentially linked to his signing include the Yanks, Mets, Orioles, Red Sox, and Mariners.

3. Bryce Harper wants $400m from Washington

Although he’s not a free agent until after the 2018 season, an interesting side story broke today that Bryce Harper has been pushing for a whopping $400m contract. This inconceivably high sum is made all the more absurd by the fact that Harper’s 2016 season was disappointing. His .243 batting average was the lowest of his professional career by a wide margin, a significant regression from last year’s .330 mark.

That hair though.

I don’t disagree that Harper is one of the brightest stars in baseball as far as talent is concerned. But I do think that his last three years don’t come close to justifying the largest contract in history. Here’s his WAR over the last three years: 1.0. 9.9, 1.6. One of those three is astronomically high, but the other two are just slightly above average. Harper’s career slash line — .279/.382/.501 — is really good, but it doesn’t match guys like Mike Trout (.306/.405/.557) or Miguel Cabrera (.321/.399/.562).

Understandably, Washington has apparently already expressed that it is prepared to move on from Harper since it is unwilling to pony up the money Harper’s asking for. I think it is a wise move: Harper is really good, and maybe will be great, but his track record is too short and inconsistent to justify a decade-long record payout.

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